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Paul Used Art to Talk about the Gospel

To those who have read the book of Acts, it will come as no surprise that the apostle Paul was a master evangelist and contextualizer, but it is less immediately obvious that he was also a student of poetry and art.

A cursory reading of the narratives of his missionary journeys in the book of Acts shows that Paul used every means at his rhetorical disposal to communicate the gospel. This is exactly what he meant in 1 Corinthians 9:22 when he said, "I have become all things to all people so that by all means I might save some." In Athens in Acts 17, that meant displaying his mastery of Greco-Roman art, poetry, and history in order to communicate with the Athenians using the symbols, language, and stories that were precious to them.

Paul’s Day in Athens

In Acts 17, we find Paul arriving in Athens in the middle of his second missionary journey after being run out of several Greek cities along the coast of the Aegean Sea.

What did Paul do upon arriving in Athens? The same thing he did everywhere else. He split his time between the synagogue and the marketplace, telling anyone who would listen about Jesus. It is perhaps no surprise that in Athens, the home of ancient philosophy, Paul got into a conversation with a few philosophers as he was walking around.

The philosophers who began to argue with Paul were from two well-known philosophical camps: Stoicism and Epicureanism. As they listened to Paul, they were a bit put off (“What is this babbler talking about?” “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”). But they were also intrigued enough to invite him to the Areopagus, which was something like a blend of a high court, city council, faculty, and general nexus of ideas for the city. Paul suddenly found himself on the center stage in front of philosophers, judges, and intellectual Greeks.

Paul Talks Art and Faith with the Philosophers

During his visit to Athens, Paul encountered an altar to an “Unknown God.” Local legend told of a devastating plague that had once swept through Athens. The people sacrificed to every god in the pantheon, but the gods did not stop the plague. The plague raged on until the poet Epimenedes, a Greek literary hero, suggested they raise an altar to an Unknown God.

When they did, the city was saved.

In his speech at the Areopagus, Paul used his knowledge of Greek poetry and folklore to show that the philosophers were wrong when they named him a “preacher of foreign divinities.” In fact, he was simply reintroducing them to one of their own gods, the one true God they had built an altar to in ignorance until Paul arrived.

Through his sermon, Paul took pains to phrase things in ways that would be familiar to the Greeks. Unlike his other messages in Acts, Paul never quoted the Old Testament. Paul did not mention the name “Jesus” or the word “Christ,” which was the Greek translation of the Old Testament word “messiah.” When he referred to Jesus, Paul simply called him “the man God appointed.”

Paul described God in ways that both the Stoics and the Epicureans of the time would relate to. He called God “the divine being” because that phrase is a Greek expression for God. The Stoics in the audience (who thought of God as “the divine essence”) would have been especially familiar with this way of speaking of God.

The Epicurean view of the gods emphasized their remoteness and the fact that they had no needs that could be supplied by humans. Paul echoed these ideas when he said that God is “not served by human hands.” The Stoics, on the other hand, had a more immanent conception of the gods, which Paul picked up on when he says that God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” You can imagine heads nodding in the audience.

And all this came through the door of art, poetry, sculpture, and story.

We can picture Paul staying up late into the night reading the Greek poets by candlelight, meditating on their words and sifting the truth from them. We can imagine the sermon coming together in his mind as he walked through the marketplace and found the altar to the Unknown God. We can wonder if part of what made his "spirit provoked" was the knowledge that the God who was unknown to the Athenians had already introduced himself to Paul.

But Paul did not only use his mastery of Greek poetry to reframe the altar to the Unknown God, he used it to push the Greeks toward belief in the one true God.

His sermon is peppered with more quotations from Greek poets to exactly this effect. When Paul said “We are his offspring,” he pulled a line directly from a poem by the Greek writer Aratus, which was part of a hymn to the father of the Greek gods, Zeus.

The other quotation (“in [God] we live and move and have our being”) is from another poem about Zeus, whose author was the very same Epimenides who told the Athenians to erect an altar to the “Unknown God.” (This is also the same Epimenides whom Paul later calls a “prophet” in the book of Titus.) Again, Paul showed the Athenians that the God he was presenting to them was one toward whom—in their brightest moments—they were already reaching.

Paul Uses Art to Challenge Their Thinking

Paul’s reference to their poets also drew attention to a few of the inconsistencies that lay at the heart of Greek philosophy and religion.

He invited them to consider why, if we are God’s offspring, did they think the divine being is like an image of silver or gold? If God made us, how can we imagine that we can also make God? Also, if we “live and move and have our being” in God, how can we imagine that a temple made by human hands could contain him?

Paul gently guided them directly into the fault lines at play within Greek philosophy itself.

Paul moved to his conclusion when he told them that the God who saved Athens from the plague had been patient with them, however, now the “times of ignorance” were over. This God was calling them to repent and believe in him. Paul’s divisive climax was his bold claim that the truth of his message is proven because “a man God has appointed” had been killed and God raised him from the dead.

The Areopagus exploded at the mention of the resurrection. Some mocked him. Some walked away. Yet for some, Paul touched something that had perhaps been niggling away at the back of their minds, and they came to him to hear more. Others were convinced and joined him, becoming believers.

All of this was only possible because Paul was a student of both art and culture. His gospel message was not too spiritual to mix with "worldly things" like poetry and philosophy. In fact, Paul's behavior shows us that God has flung his truth into all sorts of unexpected places—even an ancient pagan marketplace. Paul, the savvy and artistic communicator, gathered together all the threads of God's truth that he could find and wove them into a tapestry that depicted the risen Jesus, the God of every time, tribe, and nation.


Andy Patton is on staff with the Rabbit Room and is a former staff member of L'Abri Fellowship in England. He holds an M.A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He writes at The Darking Psalter (creative rewordings of the Psalms paired with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Pattern Bible (reflections on biblical images in the Bible).

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